My wife and I are in the process of buying a house. Which keeps presenting unexpected parallels with the process of making advertising.
We first started looking for a house a few months ago. We established a brief and set ourselves a timeline. This process established the three drivers of the process.
- We needed some lawn for our kids to play on
- We needed to be close to their schools
- We had a few months in which to find the right house (and didn’t want to spend all our weekend time at Open Homes)
So pretty quickly we fell into a pattern. We’d spend a bit of time researching (or, rather more honestly, my wife would spend a bit of time researching while I watched golf on TV). We’d look at Property Press, a couple of websites, occasionally field a call from a proactive agent and maybe have three or four potential properties come our way each week.
And then we’d eliminate. We’d look for reasons why a potential house was wrong. Most commonly this would be the absence of lawn. Sometimes a slightly unexpected location. Or a potentially dubious construction technique. But our goal was to say no to anything that didn’t obviously meet the brief. And we found we were very good at saying no. Because we had a brief that set out what we should say no to.
But then something interesting happened. The timeframe contracted.
We now have a degree of urgency. Not a blind panic, just a desire to get into our own house sooner. And with it, something fundamental changed.
Our process is still the same – the same publications, same websites, same agents, same potential pool of houses. But now we’ve started looking for reasons to include options rather than excluding them.
And so we saw two houses on the weekend that could be great. Neither meet the original brief we set in exactly the way we imagined it. But they do both meet it. We just had to see them, and seriously consider them, in order to appreciate that. We haven’t changed our brief. We’ve just had our eyes opened to how it might be met.
One of the houses has almost no lawn. So it doesn’t meet the brief as written. But when you visit the house you appreciate that our brief is actually for a house where kids can gambol and be kids. Which isn’t the same thing as having lawn.
Neither of the houses is in a location we anticipated. But they both have a manageable proximity to school. Manageable because there are other great things about them that reposition the importance of location.
So what changed is that our focus shifted from eliminating ‘what’s obviously wrong’ to investigating ‘what might be right’.
And I think there are two interesting parallels for the creative development process in this. One is the importance of timeframe in how you see an issue. The second is how you define the role of the brief.
The timeframe dictates the mindset
As when buying a house, an extended timeframe encourages clients to hold out for something better, or ‘more right’. It just seems obvious. They’ve got the time and it would be irresponsible not to use it. So they look at options and keep wanting to explore. But to do this they have to focus on what’s wrong with each idea.
So I’m wondering whether there’s some science to planning when an idea gets presented?
I’m sure you could plot it on a bell curve. At the start of the process there’s a generous amount of time so a client has the luxury of rejection. So they’ll eliminate anything that doesn’t absolutely meet the brief. At the end of the process there’s so little time that they’re panicked and so seeking/dictating an idea that’s inarguably ‘right’. So is there a sweetspot in the middle when a client is relaxed enough with the timeframe to be open to a new idea, but not so relaxed that their inclination is just to keep looking at more ideas?
What is the brief really for?
My brief said that lawn and location were paramount, but when tested it was a variation on those concepts that mattered. The important shift occurred when I stopped looking for reasons to exclude options and starting finding reasons to include them.
Which reinforces my belief that clients and agencies often still don’t agree on the role of the brief. Is it, as I suspect clients often view it, a document that defines what the right answer looks like? Or is it, as I suspect agencies more often view it, a document that asks a question that needs to be answered in the most interesting way? The former’s about eliminating wrong answers. The latter’s about embracing interesting answers.
So anyway, I’m pretty excited about potentially buying a house. Perhaps moreso because it isn’t exactly what I had in mind – it’s actually better than the house my brief might have dictated.
But now I’m kicking myself that I may have overlooked a potentially great house because I came across it at the wrong time. I’m also kicking myself when I think about the potentially great creative ideas that died because I presented them at a time when the client had the luxury of looking for reasons why they could be judged wrong, not yet the imperative of looking for reasons why they might be judged right.